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“There is no such thing as a bad boy” – Father Edward Flanagan. That’s the slogan carved into the wooden plaque that hung on the wall in the CPS public school office of the Cook County Jail gang unit. The principal of the school wing Joe W. or as he was affectionately called Polock Joe by some of us in the school unit, very much believed in that slogan. Many of the boys there serving time as inmates had worked overtime to prove that slogan wrong. Maybe what the good Father meant was they wouldn’t be so bad after he had a chance to work on them. But I can tell you first hand there were a lot of bad boys there. Like Father Flanagan at Boystown, Polack Joe never gave up on us.
I spent most of my seventeenth year there doing what everybody else did. Playing cards, fighting, bragging about shit that never happened in our lackluster criminal careers, girls we never dated, and the loves we never really had. I mean, what the fuck could we possibly know about love, we didn’t even know what the word meant, oh yeah, and crying ourselves to sleep at night as we lay in our cold grey cinder block cells. We were all just trying to get by until the next court date. Even the toughest boys had something to cry about. Everybody was a tough guy until they were looking fifty years in the joint square in the face. It was a lesson I learned and one I learned quick it was also one that would remain with me throughout my life. The only truly tough guys I know are dead. Maybe Polack Joe was right, maybe there was no such thing as a bad boy, only misguided youths and those who lacked structure in their life or someone who cared and an absence of a positive environment.
It was just ma at home for us., it was no one’s fault. I left early around fourteen to live with friends or where ever I could go. I would come home now and then to check in so she would know I was okay. Make no mistake, I knew my mother cared but she had little time to share with us between her working to put food on the table, pay the bills and her own struggle with mental illness and her own personal demons. As for my old man, sure I love him he’s my old man, but the reality is he cared about himself and whatever time and experience he did have to share he did on his own terms when he felt like it. I pretty picture of someone you claim to love? Not really I suppose but a realistic one. To be honest most of what I learned in life I did not want to be like I learned from watching and listening to him. That’s just real. He was an alcoholic with a pill problem who did what alkies and addicts do best, take care of themselves first. It was ma that did whatever she could with whatever she had to work with which was not a lot. But she tried more than anyone I ever knew. She was strong and taught us to be strong. That would be invaluable to me. Most of the boys here in the county jail had face similar struggles and lack of positive role models in their lives.
Most of the boys here in the county jail had face similar struggles and lack of positive role models in their lives. Even back then I was unwilling to put my problems, issues and sense of hopelessness on anyone else or what others had failed to do for me in my young life. I refused to blame others for lack of guidance and direction. It would take me years, decades before I would finally admit that yeah, maybe some people did fuck up by not doing what they could have to do to guide me in the right direction. Maybe I would have stood a better chance in life in a lot of ways, maybe not, but I would have stood a chance. I suppose at this point it’s all water under the bridge. Back then, however, I was a kid who thought he was a man who thought he knew it all, who believed he had all the answers. I didn’t know shit. I would find that out soon enough.
I was on the wing a week maybe two when one of the folks, a kid I knew called Lil’ Gram came up to me on the deck and asked if I could read and write. Let me explain what ‘folks’ are. There are street gangs and every one of the street gangs whether for purely profit purposes of protection is allied with another equal or stronger gang. The short of it is, in Chicago, the smart gangs got together and decided it would be better to unite and work together than fight daily over profits and territory that could easily be shared to turn a better profit. Now let’s be honest that didn’t mean everyone received and equitable share, no way, the guys on top received a share and they took care of their own the rest of the suckers were the workers, the soldiers. It was the same old pyramid scheme that existed forever, if you’re near the top you eat if you’re not you’re fucked. When the gangs did align there were some who wanted nothing to do with it, those who did sign on together fell under an umbrella recognized as the ‘folks alliance’, those who wanted nothing to do with it ultimately ended up forming the ‘people alliance’. Everybody associates or ‘rides’ with someone if for no other reason than protection and self-preservation. I mean there is a whole lot more to it than I am giving you here but you get the general idea of who and why. When I entered the system I myself was with a gang who fell under the folk’s alliance. Many of the boys on the school wing were not the brightest, best educated or literate, so when ‘Lil Gram approached me and inquired whether or not I could read and write he had good reason to ask. It just so happened that I could and he wanted to fill a seat with an ally.
I didn’t have a whole lot going for me but I was no dummy. I came from a long line of highly intelligent people even if many of them were themselves misguided or criminally inclined, they were no dummies. There was one thing I loved in my life and had loved ever since I could form a thought, the art or the written word, the telling of a story and beauty of a book and the words that hid between the covers. Those words took me to places I had never been and taught me about worlds outside my own I could one day go if I so chose to. These are the few things that would ultimately albeit years down the line, save me and show me a new way to live. But at that point in my life, all I wanted was something to do that would save me from myself.
He said he had a job for me, in the school wing office. Polack Joe was looking for a guy to replace one he had recently lost to where ultimately most of us would end up, prison. Mousie was a kid who had a long rap sheet. He was a shot caller for one of the major white and Hispanic street gangs in the city. He had just been convicted and sentenced to twelve years. Once you were sentenced and if that sentence ten years or more you were moved immediately for security reasons to Division One and wait until you would be ‘banked’ or shipped out to Joliet State Prison and from there eventually the institution you would do your time in for the years to come. Mousie who was big shit on the street and in the county jail would end up serving the better part of twenty-eight years in prison on a twelve-year sentence because he had to do what he had to do to survive. It would be almost three decades before I would ever see him again. As for me, to be asked to fill his seat was a big deal and not something just anyone got offered. You had to be trusted.
In the CPS school office we were all misfits amongst misfits. The clerical jobs we had were often viewed with jealousy by others who didn’t get to experience the privileges and perks that came along with the job. Jack Walls the assistant principal in the office, a large older gentlemanly black man, who was the polar opposite of Polack Joe’s tough-talking 50’s greaser type neighborhood guy persona. He would often remind us that we were all misfits. Jack was a religious guy who would say that Jesus hung out with misfits and wasn’t with the ‘in’ crowd. He wasn’t part of the system and rallied against the system his entire life, only He did it to better the lots of others, not his own. Jack had a way of imparting on us his wisdom and religious lessons in hopes we would one day lead better lives on the deck and intimately once we, if we, got back out into society. That was a big ‘if’ for many of us. Unfortunately, after we always respectfully listened we then forgot what he taught us, or did we?
There were six boys working as clerks at any given time in the CPS office. During my time there the seats were filled by Flaco, Lil’ Gram, Fish, Rerun, Fonzie and myself whom they called Bambino. It was a casual mixture of race and ethnicities and various gang affiliations. During our time with Polack Joe, no one was allowed to represent any affiliation gang or otherwise. We earned a mutual respect for one and other as every one of us were multiple felons and each one of us were facing sentences ranging between four to fifteen years on upwards to natural life in prison. The deal was we would go to school and study for our GED while we performed clerical work for the intakes, new entering inmates into the CCJ system. We were privy to information others, including guards and civilian county staff were. A benefit to the position was that we were considered the intelligence arm of our respective gangs. Even back then we realized that intel was a valuable commodity, the ability to provide it gave you some rank, privilege and a degree of protection. We were the ones who took all the pertinent info of a new fish coming into county jail and knew the why, when, where and how of their cases and we used it to our benefit. When it came to one of our own or an ally coming in one of the first things we told them was to never talk directly about their case to us or anyone as the walls had ears and there were a lot of snitches vying for any information to us in bargaining in their own cases. Everyone had an agenda. As I already mentioned, there were a lot of boys looking at decades in prison if not life sentences, in some cases even the death sentence. No, this was no prep school.
(To be continued.)